There is a universal understanding that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are not the players they once were. Both will inevitably move either to another team or into retirement at some point soon. Celtics fans and hoops fans in general have taken many of Boston's playoff exits to be the likely end of an era, but this summer could finally bring about the departure of the stars who defined the contemporary Celtics' spirit.
The 2013-14 season will be the final year of Pierce's contract, but only $5 million of his $15.3 million salary is guaranteed. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, therefore, has his options. He can keep the 35-year-old Pierce, and maintain the status quo. (Garnett, who turns 37 on Sunday and has been the subject of retirement rumors, has two years left on his deal.) He can release Pierce as a means of saving $10 million and likely follow up that move with other cap-clearing trades. Or he could trade Pierce to another team that either intends to release Pierce for its own cap savings or find better use for Pierce's current skill set. It's a strange thought, but according to Celtics sideline reporter Greg Dickerson (via MassLive.com), it may be more likely than you think:
"I don't think they will [bring Pierce back]," Dickerson said Sunday on CSNNE. "And I know that the company that Paul Pierce hangs around in, they do not believe -- and I don't think Paul Pierce believes -- that he is going to be brought back next year at $15 million. I know for a fact that people around Paul Pierce have pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that he's played his final game in a Boston Celtics uniform. Again, Paul wants to stay -- obviously for $15 million, but he wants to finish his career in a Celtics uniform."
The lone year remaining on Pierce's contract can be bought out for $5 million. Asked whether he believes the Celtics will trade Pierce or buy him out, Dickerson said: "One way or the other. Probably a buyout. More than likely a buyout."
Flipping Pierce isn't likely to land some transformational asset and this Celtics team on the whole is more than a move or two away from climbing the Eastern Conference ladder. None of that makes the decision to part ways with Pierce any easier for Boston, but all of this is a natural extension of the Celtics' ongoing decay. This day was coming, and for Boston this could present as good an opportunity as any to get a head start on the rebuild to come.
There is no easy path back to title contention, and no ideal resolution when a long-tenured player and the direction of the franchise are suddenly at odds. That's of no fault to either Pierce or the Celtics, who have done well to string out this relationship as long as they could. But there's no escaping the basketball life cycle, or the allure of $10 million savings for a team not likely to make a postseason dent.BDL